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Why do doctors call the bone at the tip of the index finger the “2nd Distal Phalanx?” Because giving it a name provides a shortcut. This way a doctor doesn’t have to say “the brownish wobbly bit behind the squishy pinkish bits” and can jump straight to “the liver.” It’s a means of linguistic and conceptual efficiency. A name provides an interface to discussing the thing it’s named for.

People say “cat” to mean a normally four-legged animal covered in fur that mews. Until we had a word for “cat,” we had to use other words to describe them. The same goes for “schadenfreude,” a thing that exists conceptually throughout the world but has no English name. 

In fact, when you’re forced to describe a nameless idea or thing to a friend, you’re essentially providing the definition for a thing that doesn’t yet have a word for itself.

So if it’d be useful, why not give it a name? Jared Spool (beating me to the punch with the anatomy example) gave a brilliant talk at SXSW where he gave names to different approaches to design. These types have existed for years, but having names for them provides shortcuts to thinking about them and discussing them.

But a word of warning: it can be creatively dangerous to give existing names to new things because things that truly are “new” have new definitions. Familiar names carry familiar definitions (and branding) with them. While the iPad is technically a “tablet computer,” calling it that overlooks some key distinctions between it and its pen-based predecessors. This can box you in to thinking about something in familiar terms instead of as a new concept. As a “new thing,” Apple was better off not giving the iPad a name until after it defined itself (calling it a “post-PC device” only after it’d been out a year.)

So if a thing exists with a definition but no name, don’t be afraid to give it a new one. Remember, every name is a made-up name. New names are like simple machines; tools that allow for easier discussion. They enable new metaphors and, consequently, new ways of thinking about things that already exist.

Think about the effect giving a name to AJAX had on the web (and how its definition has shifted since it was introduced). Think about names for musical genres. Think about “Web 2.0,” “HTML 5,” the ”uncanny valley,” and the “killer app.”

See also: 

Jared Spool: The Anatomy of a Design Decision [Video]

Stephen Fry: Blessay on Language [Text / Audio] (thoughts on naming of CCTV starting at 29:03)

Interfaces matter!

A great piece of software is only as useful as it is useable. That is, an application works best when it’s built around it’s user, a human being (or in some cases, another computer*).

Consider the Mapquest of the early ’00s — a click to move, a click to zoom in, a click to zoom out, and a page refresh for every click. Compare that to the Mapquest of today which takes a photocopied page from Google Maps' book. Panning around the map is akin to holding a physical map, a much more intuitive experience than the “deck of cards” feel of the original.

Here’s the kicker: it’s possible to do the same things with both versions, it’s just infinitely more enjoyable with a better interface. And a more enjoyable interface is the one people will want to use.

Also consider browsing the internet on a non-touchscreen tablet. Zooming in to a portion of the page would require you to use a combination of button presses for zooming and re-centering on the content. Now imagine you have an iPad, and you use a two-finger “unpinch” to do the same zoom and re-center in one fluid motion. In this case, the iPad was no more capable than the button-driven tablet, but the interface made it more enjoyable to use. With the iPad & iPhone, Apple has been selling interfaces. It’s no wonder they’re raging successes.

With that, I’m off to check for apartments in SF for my upcoming move. Given my options, I’ll be using, which takes the wealth of Craigslist listings (data) and marries them to the easier and more-visually-informative Google Maps (interface). Same data, new interface.

*(For those of you interested in what it means to build interfaces for computers, I’d recommend this talk by my friend Max Ogden on middleware and government data. Short and eye-opening!)